CASE #40: The Gift of Rice
In a letter to a follower, Nichiren Daishonin wrote:
The essence of the sutras preached before the Lotus Sutra is that all phenomena arise from the mind. To illustrate, they say that the mind is like the great earth, while the grasses and trees are like all phenomena. But it is not so with the Lotus Sutra. It teaches that the mind itself is the great earth, and that the great earth itself is the grasses and trees. The meaning of the earlier sutras is that clarity of mind is like the moon, and that purity of mind is like a flower. But it is not so with the Lotus Sutra. It is the teaching that the moon itself is mind, and the flower itself is mind. You should realize from this that polished rice is not polished rice; it is life itself.
Nichiren Daishonin Nichiren (1222 – 1282) is the founder of the sect of Japanese Buddhism that bears his name. Nichiren Buddhists believe it is possible to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (the title of the Lotus Sutra) with an attitude of intense devotion and faith.
The Lotus Sutra The most universally revered of all Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, alluded to in countless paintings and statues, and evoked constantly in the spiritual and secular literature of East Asia. Composed around the beginning of the Common Era, the best known version of the Lotus is the Chinese text translated by Kumarajiva in 406. Following a system developed by earlier Mahayana Buddhists, followers of Nichiren privileged the Lotus over other sutras based on the belief that it was composed at the end of Shakyamuni’s lifetime and therefore reflected his most mature understanding as a teacher.
Rice In ancient India, the word for rice meant “sustenance for the human race.” Even today the same word is used for meal and rice in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. Rice feeds more than half of the world’s population and represents the second largest planting acreage worldwide, after wheat. Most rice is consumed within ten miles of where it was produced. In Nichiren’s day it was not understood that polished rice contains fewer nutrients than the unprocessed grain.
NOTE: This koan is taken from the concluding paragraph of Nichiren’s letter “The Gift of Rice,” which can be read in its entirety here, at the SGI-USA website.
Whether phenomena arise from mind or not is a matter for philosophers to debate. The Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamutri was once riding in a cab with three such persons who were engaged in a vigorous debate about awareness. At one point Krishnamurti interrupted them to ask, “Is anyone aware of the fact that we have just run over a goat?”
Nichiren’s real point in contained in the final line of his letter: “You should realize from this that polished rice is not polished rice; it is life itself.” To look at polished rice and think that it is polished rice is to suffer a delusion so fundamental, it is doubtful we can get anything else right about life. We should know that polished rice is the moon and flowers, the trees and grasses, the human mind, and indeed the whole of the Great Earth itself. Rice is life. Knowing that, what else is there to know?
Our first ancestors
For 1.5 million years
Traveled the Great Earth
Carrying only a stone
For processing simple foods.
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